6 Best Films by Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho

So, the protagonist is in a pensive situation. The police officers are trying to forcibly convict him to ‘solve’ the case. He is in a state of daze. Just when the scene gets emotional and the audience starts having an inexplicable sympathy for him, dreading an ominous brutality that would follow, hell breaks loose and there is a frenzy that dwarfs the emotional aura and infuses change in state of mind of audiences. Similar are the situations that we get to see in typical Bong Joon-ho films.

South Korean Cinema has risen to prominence in the course of the last two decades and is getting appreciation at various film festivals. Filmmakers like Kim Ki-Duk, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Jee-woon are now enamored by cinephiles for their contribution to the world cinema. However, among Korean filmmakers, if there is someone who has garnered rather a celebrity status and is universally appreciated, and also is successful commercially and critically as well, it’s Bong Joon-ho.

With an intellectual upbringing and artistic background-  his father being a graphic designer and his maternal grandfather was a noted author, Bong Joon-ho was a child prodigy. He went on to study sociology only to resort to his passion later on, which is filmmaking.

Joon-ho started his career in South Korean Film Industry as a screenwriter. He has written scripts of lesser-known films like Motel Cactus and Phantom – The Submarine. He then went on to direct films, and touched upon varied themes. His films generally evoke an uncomfortable aura. They portray some kind of casual cruelty, which invokes an indifference to the profound concept of empathy. The sudden mood shifts and unusual humor are also parts of his movies. Also, like some other films by Korean directors, Bong’s films depict visceral naturalism.

Here’s the list of films written and directed by Bong Joon-ho –

1. Barking Dogs Never Bite [2000] –

Barking Dogs Never Bite
Barking Dogs Never Bite

The film is also known as “A Higher Animal and Dog of Flanders”. This title happens to be a satire on a British pet story “Dog of Flanders”, which is famous in East Asian countries. Bong Joon-ho kick-started his directorial journey with this dark comedy film. He showcased his penchant for indulging unusual humor to address issues with human mentality and behavior. The film tells the story of a jobless and frustrated college lecturer, who is driven crazy and annoyed by the perpetual sound of barking dogs in his neighborhood, and plans to take some action to alleviate his situation.

A Still Barking Dogs Never Bite
A Still Barking Dogs Never Bite

He subsequently starts kidnapping the dogs. When a young woman working at the apartment as a janitor receives complaints of missing dogs, she investigates the issue owing to her affection for dogs. The context also has a sound of Matt Haddon’s famous novel – “The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night”. While the book deals with the case very sensitively, this film uses incidents of investigation to hilarious effect. The filmmaker intertwines the depiction of human behavior with some gags and dark humor on dogs. Bong’s first film has a sense of innocence a filmmaker always has in his first film. The film looks more like a passion project. It has an air of adventurous pursuit, rather than the filmmaker being conscious of what he is making.

2. Memories of Murder [2003] –

Memories of Murders
Memories of Murders

‘Memories of Murder’ is Joon-ho’s foray into the casual cruelty that Korean films are often full of. The film is based on a true story of Korea’s first serial murder case. Bong Joon-ho aligns the narrative with a protagonist, who is wrongly accused of executing the murders a’ la Alfred Hitchcock, who had pioneered the theme of showing a wrong man convicted in a case. However, what Joon-ho does is he tinkers the concept and indulges the concept of convenience regarding police procedures. He does it by showing police officers forcibly convicting a retarded adolescent in the case with inadequate proof, only to reduce the effort and diligence that comprehensive investigation would take. Later, a detective from Seoul indulges to find the actual culprit.

A Still from Memories of Murders
A Still from Memories of Murders

Bong puts light on issues like police’s irresponsibility, incapability, and cruelty that human beings are susceptible to. However, he makes everything looks liberal and more like inevitable dispositions that are logical in the progression of events. Joon-ho indulges irony in the film as the murders take place when the song ‘Sad Letter’ airs on the radio. On the other hand, police cops are consulting shamans and fortune tellers. However, the director also makes sure that the irony doesn’t sound like a satire, rather portraying the milieu in the noninflected form. The film went on to win lot of awards.

3. The Host [2006] –

The Host Poster
The Host Poster

The Host was Bong Joon-ho’s first commercial success. The film seems to be an impetus to a journey in visual effects that led to his later masterpiece ‘Okja’. Bong creates a Godzilla kind of monster in this film, and uses its emergence in Seoul as the main narrative. Latterly, he focuses on one family, trying to rescue their daughter, who is encumbered in its clutches. Moreover, he merges narrative thread of pollution in the river, leading to a kind of mutation, which gives rise to this creature that is partly fish and partly monster, and devours people of the city at will.

A Still from The Host
A Still from The Host

Bong has a terrific understanding of what is possible in Korean cinema. He deliberately gives lesser power and size to the monster compared to Godzilla, considering the fact that the system and authority in Seoul is not as capable (intellectually or economically) to handle the situation as it is in the case of Godzilla. More so, he displays a terrific chaos when the authority tries to eliminate the monster. The film gets scary, intense, thrilling, and emotional in bits and pieces, and Joon-ho yet again indulges into rather wry humor that he often uses at unusual circumstances in the film.

4. Mother [2009] –

Mother Poster
Mother Poster

Bong Joon-ho returns to the thriller genre with 2009 film ‘Mother’. It tells the story of a mother, desperately searching for the killer, who had framed her son for a girl’s murder. The son suffers from a mental disability, something which is similar to his earlier film ‘Memories of Murder’. Later in the film, the protagonist remembers nothing which is related to the murder, but remembers something that is important to him. He recollects the memory of his mother trying to kill him when he was five, which is very moving but in a way, it again displays a casual approach in its portrayal.

A Still from Mother
A Still from Mother

The investigation by the police is indigenously procedural and similar to that of ‘Memories of Murder’. The mother investigates the case herself, not to find the murderer, but to exonerate her son from the case. Bong digs into the poignancy and intricacies of motherhood, but in such a melancholic scenario, the filmmaker indulges into his unusual humor, which comes as a relief. It is the investigation by the mother that gives audiences an idea of what kind of lives people lead – their troubles, their misery and more importantly- the choices they make to ameliorate them. The film went on to win several awards at various film festivals.

5. Snowpiercer [2013] –

Snowpiercer
Snowpiercer

After critical acclamation of ‘Mother’ across the globe, Bong Joon-ho had got a celebrity status and many performers were keen to work with him. Snowpiercer is Bong’s first film that has an ensemble cast with undeniably commercial appeal. This is science fiction film based on a French graphic novel ‘Le Transperceneige’ by Jacques Lob, which tells the story that is set in future, wherein a climate change operation goes terribly wrong and kills all life on the planet, except people who manage to board the Snowpiercer- a train that travels around the globe.

A Still from Snowpiercer
A Still from Snowpiercer

The filmmaker introduces layers into this action by displaying class system. Even in the situation of such deadly calamities, the people from higher strata ‘deserve’ more facilities, while the lower class ones are ‘meant’ to suffer. If we compare it to the other doomsday film, 2012 [2009], Snowpiercer had some scintillating visuals, and the film is backed by some stunning action sequences, something that remains unparalleled in Korean cinema. Unlike his previous movies, Bong indulges sick jokes in the most serious and almost intimidating ways, and it’s quite evident when a character tells that he knows the taste of human and babies. It was also lauded by film critic Roger Ebert. Also, he explores implausibility in this one, something that is unlikely for a Bong Joon-ho movie.

6. Okja [2017] –

Okja
Okja

By creating a diligently designed mutant super pig, Bong Joon-ho delves into the atrocities that human beings can execute, and portrays a picture of a dystopian society through an animal-love oriented flick. Okja tells the story of a girl and her mutant super pig. While her super pig is captured by U.S. authorities for the pre-decided business purpose, the girl embarks on a rather adventurous journey to rescue it. It’s only after an animal loving organization helps, she succeeds to execute it.

A Still from Okja
A Still from Okja

Okja has a lot of emotional scenes and touches upon a lot of themes by unleashing brutal ideas that human beings can think of, the ruthlessness of the corporate world, and more importantly, the film gives a rather horrific account of the system of slaughtering animals for food. Along with great performances by Ahn Seo-hyun (who brilliantly played the little girl, Mija) and supporting casts Jake Gyllenhaal and Tida Swinton in a negative role, Okja has extravagant visuals backed with iridescent cinematography. The best thing about Okja is its emotional context and how Bong Joon-ho resolves the screenplay, which has clearly defined plot points.

In every Bong Joon-ho film, there is a sense of affinity towards chaos. While other filmmakers restore the order in the resolution, Bong’s films seem to represent an oppositional reading. He rather uses chaos to resolve his screenplays. In other words, chaos supersedes all other factors in his films and the order is restored using disorder. However, the filmmaker doesn’t portray this as his weltanschauung, and introduces chaos as rather a consequence to the progression of events, and by doing this, Joon-ho maintains the logicality and congruity in the context of his story.

Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho is quite finicky about the depiction of the milieu in his films. He directs the scenarios in his films in such a way that not a single event or situation looks implausible, and everything looks intrinsic to Korean society. Even though his films lack the intent to appeal to the world rather than just Korea, he showcases emotions that are most humane, which makes his films relatable universally.

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